As I wrote in The Law of the Land (I), family matters are governed mainly by state law. Familiarize yourself with your state’s statutes on “domestic relations” or “family law.” But the statutes lay out what are often very general guidelines. To find out what they really mean you might need to look at what your state’s appeals courts or supreme court has said, what’s called the “case law.” A book called Legal Research: How to Find and Understand the Law offers great guidance in this area. It’s also a terrific source of general information about the law and the American justice system more generally. Check Amazon and elsewhere for used copies.
Familiarize yourself with the law as best you can because it’s all on you to see it’s followed. The place to start is the section of your state’s statutes that addresses “domestic relations,” “family law” or the like. These online databases aren’t always very user-friendly, but don’t be cowed. A little persistence is all you need.
It’s not without its own unsettling biases, but this report from NPR (11/21/07) highlights the growing concern about the role of custody evaluations in family court.
This from Court Review: The Journal of the American Judges Association, July 2005:
The Clerk’s office coordinates the business of the court, filing mountains of paperwork and scheduling all of the proceedings. The people in this office usually have a pretty good understanding of how things work and are happy to answer questions about court procedure (deadlines, forms, etc.). Of course, courts are busy places, and nowhere busier than in the Clerk’s office, so you’ve got to be patient—patient and as polite as you can manage. But courts are also supposed to be navigable by ordinary citizens, and the people in the Clerk’s office are mindful of this. Don’t hesitate to bring questions to them. There’s only one caveat: They won’t give you ANY legal advice, just info about who, what, where and how. In some places you can even get your questions answered over the phone.
If you’ve been in family court before, your old paperwork might still be useful in ways you hadn’t considered. Old attorney’s bills, for example, can help you determine with greater precision what your next proceeding will cost you. Ask which tasks will you handle yourself this time? Which will you need a lawyer’s assistance for? How much do these cost? The clearer your view of prospective expenses, the better decisions you’ll make early on.
The old file can also be huge resource as you begin to prepare your own court filings. Use the old documents as models for the ones you’ll write yourself. A book like Represent Yourself in Court will help insure you get it all right.
If you’re embarking on what might turn out to be a long, involved proceeding and you’re pro se, make sure you keep a correspondence log from the get-go. note what you send and what you receive, along with dates. you’ll find it’s something you’ll need to refer to regularly—to make deadlines, of which there will be many, and to plan your workflow.
To challenge the custody evaluation in court, you’ll need the evaluator’s whole case file, which you have a right to as due process.
Here’s language you can use for the subpoena for that file:
“Please provide: Your entire file, whether materials received, maintained, created or used in connection with this case are kept within your physical file or elsewhere, with respect to all the activities undertaken in connection with the evaluations performed in the above-captioned matter, including but not limited to any computerized scoring or interpretation, notes, memoranda, recordings, forms completed by the parties (including contracts, informed consent documents, and releases) as well as all copies of any pleadings, motions or other court documents, medical, therapeutic or school records, any and all materials provided by any party or attorney for a party (in the event any such materials were provided to her but are no longer in her possession or control, provide a list of such materials), prior drafts of any reports, time records reflecting any and all activities on your part related to this case, telephone records reflecting time and duration of any telephone calls made by or to you or anyone of your behalf in connection with this case, and any other writings of any kind or nature contained in the case file without limitation.”
I have just received and begun to read what thus far seems an extremely valuable book on the subject of custody evaluations, The Art and Science of Child Custody Evaluations by Gould and Martindale (2007). If you only have time for one text on the subject, start with this, a detailed review of current thinking on best practices for evaluators. Highly recommended if you’re planning to challenge an evaluator’s report.